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The main objective today was to get to Copiapó where at 16:00 we had a meeting with a lady from Conaf, the conservation group responsible for the National Parks in Chile.

On the way north, we had told Pablo about passing alongside a population of Copiapoa calderana, but at around 120 kph on an overcast day we passed the area without particularly seeing the plants. Today I recognised our usual spot where a bit of the old R5 provides a useful lay by, even though road building schemes have now cut our lay-by into 4 sections.

Again, we had come to see some particular plants, not so ‘famous’ as Smiler but still, plants that we would visit when passing if the opportunity arose. At this spot, in 2003, a pipeline had been laid along the old stretch of road and a small leak from one of the joints had created a smell puddle. A kind soul had placed a pad of an Opuntia in the puddle and it appeared to have rooted. Over the years, the pad had grown into a plant, now over 2 m (6 ft ) tall standing in the middle of a small oasis surrounded by Frankensia (? spelling?) in full flower.

There was another plant here that was of interest, a cactus, but not the typical C. calderana found all around. Some years I would stumble across it, some years it was playing hide and seek or I forgot to look for it. This year it looked in excellent shape and I noted its location more carefully for future reference. I feel sure that it is a C. marginata, found abundantly some 20 km farther south at the Morro Copiapó, at Bahia Inglesa. But why just a single plant? This time Angie had the answer. As usual she had wandered off on her own – no point in both of us coming home with a set of identical photographs of the same plants – and had gone as far as the lower part of the coastal hills. When she came back, she reported seeing several plants that were ‘different’, but what were they? I showed her ‘my’ C. marginata and she immediately recognised this as being the same as ‘her plants’.

Pablo added another interesting story. He and Hans Lembcke had been on a (mainly) seed collecting trip and had collected two plants that had stood next to each other. They sent one plant to Backeberg, who, in 1959, described it as C. lembckei and they sent the seed to the newly started nursery of Karlheinz Uhlig who distributed the plant throughout the hobby under that name. As usual, Backeberg fell foul of not following the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature and so his description was judged invalid. Ritter had noted the discrepancy and had published C. calderana as a new species based on the other plant collected by Lembcke.

It seems that over the years C. calderana enjoyed a period of taxonomic stability while plants grown under the name of C. lembckei caused a lot of confusion, popping up as a synonym of a number of other taxa, including C. marginata. Pablo seems to remember that the two plants had been identical. Had some of the seed collected here and sent to Uhlig included some seed of the C. marginata plants also found here? The intrigue continues.

What I can say from my own experience is that plants acquired by me in Europe under both names (calderana and lebckei) look similar enough to be considered the same species, but that on one of my plants, the lower stem had produced offsets that looked quite different from the original head – different enough to confuse people like Rudolf Schulz, Brendan Burke, Benjy Olliver and Leo van der Hoeven into thinking that they were different species. There had been some correspondence about this phenomenon in The Chileans too. Marlon Machado suggested that the differences were caused by hormones. The lower stem of the original plant, obtained by John Pilbeam from an old collection that he had bought had been badly marked. Leo suggested that I should cut off the pretty top and root it and throw away the lower part. I tend not to throw away plants as long as there is life left in them and so enjoyed new offsets coming from the old stem. Marlon suggested that the apical dominance caused by growth hormones was lacking in the lower stem and had so produced ‘different’ looking offsets. I’ll have to dig out the images when I get home as well as the feature in The Chileans.

Back in nature, it has to be said that C. calderana looks so much better on a sunny day than on overcast days. I will be passing by again with Johnathan in weeks to come and hope to catch them in the sun to be able to show the contrast.

We arrived in Copiapó in good time for our meeting with the lady from CONAF. There were three more gentlemen present as Pablo gave a presentation (in Spanish) of his experiences with Cylindropuntia tunicata in South Africa, then in Australia and now, seeing it in Chile at Los Choros. This is a Mexican cactus that seems to have been introduced to the Los Choros area (according to stories from the goat herders) when donkeys were introduced from Mexico and the US to help in the collection of nitrates at the end of the 19th century. When the nitrate boom collapsed, the donkeys had been turned lose and become ferile.  Pablo will prepare a more detailed report about this later.  We learned from one of the CONAF reps that there was a similar aggressive stand of C. tunicata near Ovalle, an area that Jonathan and I hope to visit in weeks to come when we will ask for more information at their local CONAF office.

Altogether a very useful meaning with a mutual exchange of information and the message understood that whilst in general C. tunicata does not pose an immediate threat to the endemic flora, populations should be monitored in case vectors for distribution such as goats, donkeys, guanaco and rats (new rubbish tips at new human settlements) cause an outburst of the plants.

We decided to drive down to Vallenar so that we could make an earlyish start for a look at Huasco and what is happening along the coast road to Carrizal Bajo.

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